Oh, Mary! Roxanne Fay and summer theater options

Roxanne Fay’s modern parable and a preview of Summer theater offerings.

Roxanne Fay first thought of writing and performing in a play about Mary Magdalene after she read Colm Toíbín’s short novel The Testament of Mary — about that other Mary, Jesus’ mother — and couldn’t get the publisher to answer her questions about adaptation rights.

Before she gave up on dramatizing the novel — someone else eventually did that, and it opened on Broadway last year with Fiona Shaw — she found herself intrigued by the woman whose presence in the New Testament is tantalizingly ambiguous. So she resolved to write a play about her — and the result, Upon This Rock: The Magdalene Speaks, runs May 27 -28 at the Dali Museum and then moves to The Studio@620, where it plays till June 1. Tickets are $15-$20.

Fay (who appeared most recently in freeFall’s The Normal Heart) found that the paucity of ancient material about her subject was a spur to creativity.

“She’s generally supposed to appear four times in the Gospels,” she says. “She being the only person, the only one of Christ’s followers who was present for his death, his interment, the rock being rolled away, the resurrection. She was the only one who saw all those things. And I thought, well, there’s got to be a reason for that.” She researched the figure thoroughly in extra-Biblical sources (including Gnostic Gospels), but was sure she didn’t want to go the route of a recent pop-fiction interpretation.

“I had read in The Da Vinci Code, the whole Mrs. Jesus and all that,” Fay said. “I thought, that’s kind of interesting, but then that defines her as somebody’s wife. And I wanted to talk about where did she come from, and what was it in her life that makes her take what was really a subversive path.”

So she imagined Mary “in the last moments of her existence” speaking from a cave in southern France “where many of the cults of Mary Magdalene believe she ended up after being set adrift in a rudderless boat.” From this venue, the little-known figure — whom Fay also identifies as Mary of Bethany and “the woman saved from stoning” — tells the story of her life, from conflicts with the apostle Peter to her ministry in France.

Fay hopes eventually to present the play in repertory with The Testament of Mary, the rights to which have just become available to her. Her current plan is to offer both monologues with Jobsite Theater, possibly in November.

As to Upon This Rock now, Fay hopes the play will be of interest even to people who aren’t conventionally religious. She wants spectators to discover that “faith, God in our lives, whatever we conceive that to be, is not as complicated or prohibited or hard to attain as we have made it.” And, regardless of religion, she thinks her monodrama is, simply enough, entertaining.

“It’s just a really cool story.”
More to look forward to in the coming weeks ... The days when theaters closed their doors for the summer are over. Local houses are presenting some of their most interesting plays over the coming hot middle months. It all starts with Sam Shepard’s True West at The Studio@620 in St. Pete (June 5-8), about two brothers, one a civilized screenwriter, the other a wild desert rambler. Some commentators see the two guys as rival aspects of Shepard’s own personality; in any case, their rivalry is fascinating and at times very funny.

A week later, Return to the Forbidden Planet, a Jobsite Theater/Straz Center co-production (June 12-July 6), opens at the Straz’s Jaeb Theatre in Tampa. Based oh-so-loosely on Shakespeare’s The Tempest and boasting music by Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, James Brown and the Beach Boys, it’s a deliberately cheesy science fiction romp full of hokey special effects and silly derring-do.

Sharing the same opening night is The Sugar Bean Sisters at Stageworks (June 12-29), a tabloid-like tale about two twisted sisters in the fictional town of Sugar Bean, Fla., not far from Disney World. One is depending on a Mormon afterlife to get her out of her rut; the other’s faith is in flying saucers. Ridiculous events cascade as a weird bird lady, a weirder reptile handler, and a Mormon bishop come to call.

A much more serious work is Philip Hayes Dean’s The Sty of the Blind Pig at Sarasota’s Banyan Theatre (July 17-Aug. 3). Set in Chicago in 1955, this is about an African-American woman and her unmarried adult daughter and how their lives are changed by a peripatetic blind man. The subtext here is all about the growing Civil Rights movement — but the mom-and-daughter duo don’t necessarily have the right politics.

The funniest play of the season is bound to be Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage at American Stage (July 18-Aug. 10), about the parents of two warring schoolchildren who come together for a sensible chitchat — and careen into fierce combat as the evening progresses. Reza, whose play Art has no doubt followed its worldwide run with performances on the moon and the planet Uranus, has an unfailing sense for the neuroses of the upper middle class; expect hilarity.

And finally, Banyan Theatre offers another serious play with Donald Margulies’ Collected Stories (Aug. 7-24), about a writing teacher whose star student  betrays her with stories that she has no right — or does she? — to tell.

A theater festival offering performance, workshops, and networking is scheduled to come to the Bay area on August 29-31. The 2014 Tampa Bay Theatre Festival (TBTF) is the brainchild of actor/director/producer Rory Lawrence and will be aimed at theater professionals as well as local spectators. Taking place at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, Stageworks, and the Courtyard by Mariott, the festival will kick off on Friday afternoon with workshops on Auditioning and The Business of Acting. Friday evening will conclude with a full- length play and a free networking social at the Courtyard by Marriott. Saturday morning and afternoon will consist of an Improvisation workshop, and a 4-hour Acting Boot Camp taught by Hollywood actress Tasha Smith. Afterwards, actors from Tampa and elsewhere will perform in Monologue, Scene, and Short Play competitions. Full length plays will also be offered on Saturday evening, and Sunday will consist of a Musical Theatre Singing (Solo) competition, full-length play, and a culminating Awards Party to honor the winners of the festival competitions. Participating in the festival will be local theater personalities Gavin Hawk, Georgia Mallory Guy, Anna Brennen, Lil Barcaski, and Nate Jacobs. Tickets to performances will cost $15-$20, workshops $10-$15, and the Acting Boot Camp $95. For more information and enrollment, got to tampabaytheatrefestival.com.

So now there’s no reason to sweat out the Florida summer. Our legitimate theaters have a lot to offer. And these are just my top picks; no doubt there will be surprises.

See you in the cool lobby. 

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